Joe Graviss

Joe Graviss

Looking back over our long history, it seems inevitable that Kentucky would become what Versailles calls itself today, “The Horse Capital of the World.”

We got our reputation early, when some of the first settlers quickly learned that our ideal geography and moderate weather were a winning bet when it came to breeding horses that ran faster than anywhere else.

There were a few bumps along the way, especially during the Civil War, but by the late 1800s, few places in the country could compete with what our horse farms had to offer.

Two events from that era helped solidify the gains we still enjoy today. The first, of course, was the start of the Kentucky Derby in 1875, while the second can be traced to August Belmont’s decision a decade later to move his prominent thoroughbred operations from New York — now home to the Belmont Stakes, his namesake — to Central Kentucky. It didn’t take long for others to follow his lead.

Proof of Kentucky’s continued dominance can be found in a presentation that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission gave late last month to the General Assembly’s Subcommittee on Equine Issues. The commission’s figures showed that there have been more than 17,000 thoroughbred mares bred here in the commonwealth this year. That is a little more than double the total of the next eight leading states combined.

Another report at the committee meeting, this one from the University of Kentucky’s Ag Equine Programs, indicated a bright future when it comes to educating those who will be directly involved in running the industry in the years ahead.

School officials say more than 400 students have graduated with a degree in equine science and management since it was first offered 11 years ago and 330 more are currently taking classes.

Three-fourths of those alumni either found a job here in Kentucky or continued their education, while just a fourth moved out of the state. 

Seven years ago, UK, the Kentucky Horse Council and other related organizations took a comprehensive look at just how big the horse industry is in the commonwealth. It was the first survey of its kind since 1977, and it found that more than 242,000 horses graze and run on 1.1 million of the state’s 25.4 million acres. Thoroughbreds are the leading breed when measuring raw numbers, followed by the Quarter Horse, Tennessee Walking Horse and American Saddlebred.

Each stallion is similar to a multimillion-dollar factory, including the direct and indirect jobs that go with it. We’re so lucky because all those horse farms are like a free national park for us, producing tourism and economic strength. Keeping all that beauty, jobs and revenue here is crucial.

The value of the horses and assets like farms, feed and equipment topped $23 billion in 2012, and revenues from sales and services reached $1.1 billion. This all drove more than 40,000 jobs on and around our farms, and that doesn’t include all the tourism jobs it drives.

Those numbers are undoubtedly much larger now, thanks to the massive rise of historical racing machines now housed at or near most of our racetracks. These machines have taken in $6.5 billion since the first one went online in 2011, and revenues this year are on track to double last year’s total. Much of the net proceeds are funneled back into programs benefiting the industry.

Our early settlers had no idea, of course, just how big their favorite pastime would be a century or two down the road, but I doubt they would be surprised by the outcome. What they discovered then is still true now: There’s no better place to raise, breed or race a horse anywhere else in the world.

Joe Graviss is state representative for District 56, which covers Woodford County and parts of Franklin and Fayette counties. He is a former owner and operator of nine area McDonald’s restaurants. His email address is joe.graviss@lrc.ky.gov

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